California Literary Review

Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: From Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh – by John Elder

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April 24th, 2007 at 4:10 am

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Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa: From Vermont to Italy in the Footsteps of George Perkins Marsh
by John Elder
University of Virginia Press, 282 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

On the Track of the Man Who Loved Trees

This is a beautiful book. The author is a professor of English at Middlebury College whose writing has centered on our natural environment. In his new work Elder describes his voyage to Tuscany, following the traces and recalling the life of an older Vermonter, George Perkins Marsh, who was the author of the first great American work on the environment.

Marsh was a polymath, a genius in many fields. He published Man and Nature, which is still in print, in 1864, when he was the American envoy to Italy. He spent 21 years in that post, still the longevity record for our ambassadors. He died in service in 1882, at the age of 81, while he was on a visit to the forestry school at Vallombrosa in Tuscany.

Marsh accomplished much in his long life, after first showing his brilliance as a student at Dartmouth College. He was the American minister to Turkey before Abraham Lincoln sent him to Italy. He was a lawyer, an abolitionist, an authority on languages, the Vermont state railroad commissioner, and a Congressman who rose in the House to make what old John Quincy Adams thought one of the greatest speeches he had ever heard–a speech that reconciled opposing views as to what should be done with James Smithson’s inheritance, and that finally made possible the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.

John Elder and his wife Rita made their way to Vallombrosa slowly, by way of eight weeks’ walking across England and then across southern France. This seems especially apt, though Elder does not say so, for George Perkins Marsh was also a walker. He had trekked across the Turkish empire while envoy at Constantinople, and in his seventies was proud that he could still make his way to the top of smaller Alpine summits.

Marsh’s book Man and Nature is above all a book of praise for forests, and a warning of the desolation that can follow deforestation. When Marsh was a boy the great forest trees of Vermont and New Hampshire were gone, logged by the first settlers. The landscape was one of bare hills where sheep grazed, and eroding stream valleys below. Later, as he learned and traveled, Marsh came to see that deforestation could do grave damage not just locally in Vermont but to the economies of whole countries and empires, including those of the Mediterranean. The destruction of Mediterranean forests began in ancient times, and by the 19th century to find a good forest in Italy one needed to go into the Alps or the Apennines. In the central Apennines, the glorious old beeches that grow at higher levels could not naturally expand their groves because of the herds of sheep and goats that ate any seedling.

As Elder says, Marsh found at Vallombrosa, when serving as our envoy to Italy, “a focal landscape for his meditation in a time of environmental crisis….For almost a thousand years the Vallombrosian monks, and the surrounding villages under their jurisdiction, protected and cultivated their huge forest domain.” Sadly, after the unification of Italy in 1870 there was widespread and needlessly destructive logging both at Vallombrosa and elsewhere in Italy. (One wishes Professor Elder had mentioned Norman Douglas, who laments in his 1915 work Old Calabria the destruction of great virgin forests in southern Italy that survived centuries of Norman, Bourbon, and Napoleonic rule and misrule but fell prey to modern lumber companies.) Today the Vallombrosa area has been designated a Riserva Naturale, affording a good degree of protection to a forest that, Elder finds, “retains botanical diversity and beauty to an extraordinary degree.”

Marsh made his final trip from Rome to Vallombrosa in 1882 in order to visit his friend Adolfo di Berenger, who had founded the forestry school that still exists there today. The old Vermonter lay down for a nap there on a sunny afternoon in July, and never awakened. Marsh’s remains were met on arrival in Rome by a regiment of Italian lancers and the kingdom’s foreign minister, and he was buried in the old Protestant cemetery near the Pyramid of Cestius. He lies there today, in the company of John Keats the poet, Richard Henry Dana Jr. who wrote Two Years before the Mast (and died in Italy the same year as Marsh), and many other notables from the English-speaking world.

Elder’s book is not only about Marsh and his time, not only about Vallombrosa and Italy, but also about Elder’s own Vermont–including the 142 acres that he and Rita own near Bristol. There the forest is recovering, the red oaks and hemlocks and spruce have come back, and each year the Elders make many gallons of good syrup from their maples. Today’s Vermont, Elder tells us, is a green but not a perfect place. There are new “McMansions” on the edges of quiet old villages, and the timber companies of northern Vermont are tempted to sell out to real-estate developers. It seems, though, that Vermont will continue in coming years to be a national leader in conservation. Although Elder does not say so, this is true in good part because the state contains people like him who speak out and help lead Vermont toward good policy.

Elder loves the great old trees of Vallombrosa, just as he finds a refuge in his own green acres. He takes joy in the protected places like biosphere reserves and our Federal wildernesses, that in our much devastated world “…can feel like arks. They are places to preserve at least a modicum of biodiversity, sheltering the wild stocks from which, in a postdiluvian time, the world may be replenished.”

Meanwhile, though, while the human population of Vermont grows slowly, Elder warns us that for the poorest nations this will be a century of devastating population increases. Humans needing food and heat and a livelihood will continue to ravage the natural world around them. Only a global perspective, Elder says, will see us through. Those of us in the affluent countries must help serve as stewards of the land, “on behalf of a larger ecological community as well as of the entire human family.”

One may perhaps argue with the author’s assertion that despite “recent and deplorable retreats at the level of governmental policy,” the United States remains a leader of conservation in general. The environmental ethic that grew strong in the country just a few decades ago–in the years when Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring and a Republican president named Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency–is weak today.

America’s population is two and a half times what it was when this reviewer was born, and we are told that our three hundred million will grow by another half in the next half-century. It is demonstrably a time to protect not just our air and water but our remaining open space, and not just through Federal action but at every level of government and society. We are not doing so. Driving across the country, one sees every year more sprawl beyond the edges of our cities, more strip malls and ugliness reaching out into the countryside, and few attempts to make park growth keep pace with population growth. With due respect to Professor Elder, if he spent more time outside his green Northeastern kingdom he might feel even greater outrage at this scene.

One of the many virtues of this book is its Introduction, written by David Lowenthal. Elder, notes Lowenthal, says that for over thirty years he has been on his way to the once denuded and now reforested Mount Tom, which looms over Marsh’s birthplace near Woodstock. Lowenthal has been en route there for twice as long. Ever since he first read Marsh’s Man and Nature in 1947, he says, “my life has been entwined with his.”

One might add to this that Lowenthal grew up in Washington, earned degrees from Harvard, Berkeley, and Wisconsin, taught at Vassar and University College London, and published his first biography of George Perkins Marsh in 1958. It was a good biography, but years later Lowenthal decided that Marsh deserved more. In 2000, when he was 77, Lowenthal published an entirely new biography that will remain the definitive work on a great American. Dear professors Lowenthal and Elder, Ad multos annos!

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